The Northern Italian bobbinlaces that developed in centers such as Milan and Genoa are always a bit difficult. I don’t say this in regard to technique. Patricia Read and her student Lucy Kincaid’s carefully researched book “Milanese Lace, An Introduction” was first published in 1988. This, along with their followup publications are excellent resources. Other manuals such as several works by Louise Colgan and Helga Maria Hofmeister’s “Mailänder Spitze” have also stayed very close to the best Milanese traditions. However, much work remains to be done to trace the historical progress of this lace. One of the best references is Margaret Jourdain’s “Old Lace, A Handbook for Collectors” from 1908. Elisa Ricci in “Old Italian Lace” also shows numerous examples and tries to outline design progression, but it is a rather high level survey. She and other authors note the important embroidery and ribbon-making industries of the area and speculate these may have influenced technical aspects of Milanese lace.
Milanese lacemakers carefully developed or adapted techniques to fit the current fashion. The earliest Milanese designs appear to date from around the mid 17th century, and bear a close resemblance to the contemporary flat and gros point needelaces of Venice. Some examples include extensive raised work meant to imitate the sculpted edges of Gros Point. Milanese lace is now considered a tape lace, but it came at a time when lace motifs were starting to break up into small pieces. Many early pieced laces, particularly from England, still retain their continuous tape origins. Note the birds in this month’s selection – are they tape or pieced? Tape laces in much lighter linen thread were also made at roughly the same time in Flemish work. It does appear that subsequent Milanese took a more purely tape lace route while the breakup into discrete motifs was developed further in northern Europe (although early works such as the 1599 footbench cover made for Archduke Albrecht and his wife Isabel of the Netherlands demonstrate that figural bobbinlaces were already well under development before Milanese really got started). Here is where most of the confusion lies – many different tape laces developed from this base and spread to a number of countries, especially Eastern Europe and Russia. It is not easy to tell them all apart.
Another often noted characteristic of Milanese laces is the gradual development of a mesh background. This month’s piece, with very few brides, is typical of earlier work. As the 17th century progressed we find some of the earliest attempts to develop a background mesh. Milanese laces also often included heraldic elements, and the figural work seen here is still carried out in places like Cantu today. The thread is heavier than what one finds in contemporary Flemish laces, and the small tally elements are also typical of Genoese plaited work. Note the symmetry of the design, and the beautifully figured tape as it winds around the pattern. One element that seem exclusive to Italian Milanese is the continuation of the tape at the bottom of the border, joining seamlessly with the next repeat. The small plaited edge at the very bottom is an addition, but again echos Genoese work.
The piece I chose for this month’s lace is a linen border 6″ wide, which shows elements of both tape and pieced techniques. This piece was formerly in the collection of Marlene Stainer, who use it as an inspiration for her own lacework.
When I was doing my City & Guilds Part 2, I chose Charles Voysey, (1857-1941) an architect of the the Arts & Crafts Movement, for the subject of my designer research. He was contemporary with William Morris, and based many of his pieces on stylised birds and plants – particularly in consideration to the sometimes awkward cuts that have to be made to wallpaper to go round corners! In the 19th century, architects designed far more than just the shape of the building itself – their designs spread into the carpets, curtains, wallpapers, doorknobs, and tiles within the building. This piece of lace is very reminiscent of his wallpaper and textile designs.